No other show can boast its return with the promise that "The Big Balls are back!" except ABC's popular "Wipeout," which kicks off its first winter edition with the usual treacherous obstacle course but this time with a winter wonderland spin. While the Big Balls (which have to literally be jumped upon and across without falling into the water below) are easily the most popular feature on the show, the winter twist this time around includes such tough obstacles as a spinning ski lift, airborne hockey pucks as well as snowballs literally thrown at contestants while trying to stay upright.
Our Jim Halterman recently headed north of Los Angeles to visit the "Winter Wipeout" set and while he did not attempt the course himself, he did talk with hosts John Henson and Jill Wagner as well as Executive Producer Matt Kunitz about whether the Big Balls are the toughest part of the course, what makes for a good contestant and, of course, how they go about making things as safe as possible for all involved.
"As crazy as the Big Balls are," said Kunitz, "they're probably one of our more safer things out here. The things that scare me [are] the snow blowers... they are these big moving arms that are going up in the air. When it gets to highest point in the air, it's probably 10 feet off the ground so in order to get over you have to jump on one of the arms and ride it over. I get nervous when someone is 10 feet up and falling straight down." While it doesn't happen often, Wagner said that getting across the Big Balls isn't completely impossible. "I know that's the one that everybody wants to get across but nobody really winds up doing it," she said. "I have seen people do it but it's really, really rare."
Have Henson, Wagner or Kunitz ever done the course or do they have plans to give the Big Balls a try? "I haven't and I won't ever," said Henson, "because every day that I come to work I see people create a wonderful argument for never attempting the course and after three seasons I'm scared straight. It's like that program where they'd take troubled kids and scare them into being good kids." Kunitz believed others might find a sense of fun in seeing him on the course but he definitely would not. "There is no upside to me to do any of this. I don't need to be ridiculed by my crew. I don't need a video of me being shown at the wrap party." Wagner concurred by saying she knows her place and is happy to stay in it. "I auditioned to be the host and not a contestant," she said. "I sit out here all day long and I see what happens. Would you want to go through it? No!"
There are many elements that can make for a good "Wipeout" contestant and Henson seemed to think a touch of insanity is a step in the right direction. "A borderline personality helps," he explained. "Somebody who may or may not have had an extended stay in an institution. I don't know if you're familiar with the term 51-50? 72-hour hold? I think it's a combination of the right attitude and extreme imbalance in your mood swings." One thing that doesn't necessarily make you a shoe-in for the show - being in terrific shape. "It's not about physical fitness," Kunitz offered. "You don't see very many physically fit people out here. We're really looking for your average next-door neighbor and that can be from an 18-year-old to Grandma. What makes an ideal contestant is a big personality. We tell them, 'Listen guys, this is a TV show. You need to go out there and talk it up!'"
Wagner said that taking any worrying out of the equation is key. "You can't have any fear. You have to go just balls to the walls, so to speak, and just run as fast as you can. You can't be worried. 'Am I going to hurt something? Am I going to break something? Am I going to fall?' Even if you can't swim, you can't worry about it. I think the crazier the better."
All that said Henson admitted to not giving the contestants advice before tackling the course. "They pay my mortgage so I'm the one right before saying 'You can do this! I've got a really good feeling about you! 5'1", 250, you've got the right build for this... ma'am." Wagner, however, confessed she can't help but warn them before they start the course. "I try to convince people to go home. I'm not professional at all!"
While it's easy to think of "Wipeout" as purely a show to watch for laughs, the obstacle course is beyond difficult and injuries are bound to happen so it's no surprise that safety is paramount. "We have a huge crew of safety people," Kunitz said. "We have four EMTs and an ambulance. We have a safety coordinator so safety is the number one concern for us." In fact, according to the executive producer, safety truly starts at the very beginning. "When we're designing the stunts we're thinking how do we make them safe? It's a very fine line because you want a great wipeout but you don't want to hurt anybody."
One way to keep things safe - padding, padding and, yes, more padding. "We spend $200,000 on padding," said Kunitz. "Everything you see out here is either six inches to sometimes 24 inches of padding underneath all the vinyl. Every bar, everything they're going to smack into is padded. Even the runways are padded. We learn as we go along. We found that with some of our biggest injuries in the earlier seasons [was when] they'd be running just on a runway from one stunt to the next and they'd slip and it was a wooden runway and they'd cut their knee. So now they're padded runways and the show is evolving and becoming even more and more safe."
Besides keeping them safe, Henson also made sure to give props to the crew that does the hard work of putting the courses together and keeping them original. "To be truthful," he said, "we do have a great team of experts who work on coming up with new, fresh designs. We always try to come back each season and really from show to show to show [have] different looks and different obstacles to keep the audience and the contestants guessing."
Ironically, one of the biggest complications on the day of this set visit was Mother Nature. "This is November, this is Southern California and it is 90 degrees today! That is a complication for shooting in the winter," said Kunitz as he stood in the shade to avoid the hot sun. "Typically, we shoot in the winter and we're trying to fake it for summer and when we do these interviews in the morning it's so cold, there's breath coming out of the contestants and we have them suck on ice so you can't see their breath. Now, when we want it to be cold, it's 90 degrees."
What's the best stunt that Henson has ever seen? "It's like asking Charlie Sheen who the best hooker he ever had is," he joked. "You know, it all blends into one another. It's not as if I appreciate one any less or any more; they're all wonderful to me."
The winter edition of "Wipeout" return tonight on ABC at 8:00/7:00c.